A Case for Building Architectural Models

Posted by LGM | Thursday, February 4th

We were forwarded a great article on Life of an Architect by Bob Borson

A Case for Building Architectural Models

Bob Borson —  February 1, 2016 

When architects are in school, they build a lot of models during their coursework. I don’t have an actual count but I bet that over the 6 years I spent in school that I built a few hundred models. That’s what architecture students do, they build models. Cardboard, chipboard, foam core, museum board, basswood … you name it, I’m pretty sure I used it to build a model.  Fast forward 20 years and I look around and think:

“What happened to all the architectural models?!?”

We still build architectural models in my office, but not that many – and far fewer than I would like to see built. We probably average about 1 or 2 a year, but we don’t build them for the same reasons I used to crank out models in my school days. As we become more and more dependent on our computers, physical architectural models are becoming a lost form of communicating design ideas. In school, I would go through loads of chipboard and more #11 X-Acto blades than seems reasonable, to create massing and assembly models. While most of the models we build now are still in the Design Development stage, they represent a fairly resolved concept by the time we build them.

Please make a mental note as you start thinking about how physical models are a throwback to the good old days and that technology has evolved to a point where we can do so much more during the design process with just the click of a button, that I don’t care for  that argument. It’s like trying to debate whether pizza or cheeseburgers are better. They are both terrific and both have a role to play; I receive enough emails relating to hand sketching (old architects) versus computer drawing (young architects) that I think I have my finger on the pulse on how that argument plays out.

I never said that computer models and 3D images aren’t valuable, I’m just saying that there are some benefits to building a physical model that go beyond a printout of a rendered image. Both physical and computer generated images are tools that architects can use to communicate the design directly to a client, but from personal experience, individuals have always seemed to be much more responsive to physical models that have the ability to convey a sense of depth, dimension & texture. All you have to do is put a model in the middle of a room where there are images on all the walls and watch where the crowd spends their time.

My office is on Revit and I am better than average on SketchUp – both are electronic tools that we use extensively. But why aren’t more firms building physical models like they – like you – were trained to do when you were in school? You probably think it’s because it’s too expensive … and you might be right. Maybe only really large projects can afford to have a model built, because I haven’t built a physical model for a kitchen remodel or master bedroom addition ever in my life.

(Does anybody build those sorts of models?)

We don’t have a rule in the office that establishes a threshold for when a model gets built and when it doesn’t, but I can look around the office and say with some degree of confidence that unless your project is over $1,000,000,  you probably aren’t going to get a model … but let’s talk about cost for a moment. Assuming that your knee-jerk reaction as to why models aren’t built is because clients refuse to pay for them. Actually, most of the models we build in our office were build as part of the design process and we didn’t ask permission as to whether or not we can build it. We normally inform our clients during the interview process that model building is sometimes a part of our decision process.

But let’s talk a little about the expense associated with building models. We built a scale model of the KHouse Modern project back in August of 2013. We had 3 summer interns that year, and two were dedicated full-time to building architectural models. The third intern spent her summer mostly working on graphic projects, but there was a week when we pulled her off her normal routine and had her build the KHouse Modern model. As I recall, she put this model together in less than a week, and her hourly rate was $35/hour (because if you intern in my office, you get to do real work and we charge real money for your efforts … just not a lot of real money). If she was 100% billable – which I doubt she was – her billing rate (for labor) for the week would have amounted to $1,400. Let’s throw in another generous estimate of $300 for model materials, which brings the grand out-of-pocket total of this model to $1,700. When I compare this amount to what our fee might run on any project of this size and scale, the cost of this model represents 9/10ths of 1% of the total architectural fee.

That doesn’t sound so expensive to me.

I could also talk about how effective this model was when meeting with the client. If I put a stack of 3D renderings on the table and pointed at the images while telling my story, there would have been a period of mental gymnastics that I would need our client to jump through as they orient and reorient themselves to the project as we switch through all the different images. With a physical model, the understanding is instantaneous and constant.

Not all firms do the sort of work where physical models benefit the design process. I would imagine that the folks that roll out Jack in the Box restaurants don’t need to build a model of the restaurant when meeting with the client. Chances are, they don’t actually meet with the client, rather an efficiency and utilization expert retained to manage the construction of Jack-In-the-Boxes. Mr. In-the-Box has more important cheese related dilemmas to address.

If the model doesn’t benefit the communication process, of course I would not advocate that someone actually make a physical model.

Two of the three partners in my office are heavy sketchers and as a result, we tend to work through our design process in that manner. When I was in school, back when I was just starting my journey and my sketches were unrecognizable, physical models played a huge role in my design process. Actually, they played a huge role in everybody’s design process. So why does that process stop once we get in to the real world? I can still make a chipboard model to study massing in the blink of an eye – this isn’t just about the lack of fees in our projects. I think it has more to do with the time associated with making a model. Models take time to build and most people don’t have that sort of time built in to their schedule of deliverables.

Since we use Revit, I can output some reasonable 3-dimensional images as a by-product of the schematic and design development process; and this is what we use when meeting on the kitchen remodel and master bedroom addition projects. For the most part they work fine .. they do their job and the client Ooo’s and Ahh’s at the images, thinking they’ve received something special. We don’t charge for these images as a specific line item, they aren’t something special that you have to pay extra for … No, these images are simply outputs from the system that just happen come along for the ride. But a physical model? That is definitely something special for the clients. Based on their reaction and the productivity of those meetings when a model is present, they know it and their ability to visualize the project is all that much better when a physical model is involved.

What I don’t understand – and I’ve thought about this a lot – is this:

Why don’t the clients want their model after their house is built?

Our office has a dozen or so models in it and they look cool … but technically speaking they aren’t our models. The clients have paid for them but to the best of my knowledge, none have ever wanted to keep their model afterwards. This literally blows my mind. If I was lucky enough to hire myself to design my dream house, and, as part of that process, I built a miniature version of my dream house, I would want that model to put in the full sized version of my dream house. It doesn’t take much imagination for me to visualize me standing in my dream house, and in an acrylic framed box mounted on the wall was a miniature version of the very house I was standing in?!? Amazeballs.

That would be enough of a reason to build a model for every one of our projects. So what’s the good word – is model building worth it or not?

Happy model building,


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